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Literally meaning "wheel" but also figuratively referring to an unfolded lotus blossom, the word "chakra" (Sanskrit, cakra) comes from India. In the context of meditation and related spiritual practices, it has been used in relatively esoteric texts since roughly the fifteenth century c.e. (although similar ideas appear in texts as early as the fourth century b.c.e.) to refer to a number of energy centers in the subtle body along the spinal column and associated with various states of consciousness, colors, deities, geometrical shapes, and sounds. The idea of such energy centers appears also in various traditions in Asian cultures beyond India, and the term has now entered the vocabulary of American psychological, medical, and spiritual discourse influenced by traditional Asian thought.

The classical idea of the chakras is associated with the notion that the physical body is infused by a subtle but powerful inward energy said to be of the nature of divine consciousness. (Some contemporary therapeutic theories associate the chakras with various external auras, but these are not mentioned in traditional Indian texts.) This conscious energy is known in Indian languages by various terms, the most common being shakti (Sanskrit, sakti, "effective power") or kundalini (Sanskrit, kundalini, "coiled"), the latter because it is said to rest dormant at the bottom of the spine, like a sleeping snake. In Chinese this energy is known as chi (pinyin qi, "life force").

Through the practice of meditation and Yoga and, according to some classical traditions, the compassionate grace of God given through the guidance of a spiritual master, this dormant consciousness is said to become "awakened" and to move up the spine along a subtle channel known in Indian texts as the susumna nadī ("gracious stream"). As it does so, this energy opens the various chakras, which are sometimes described as beautiful lotuses that unfold their petals when nourished by the power of ascending consciousness.

The number and location of the chakras vary somewhat according to different texts, but most relevant traditions recognize at least six such centers of consciousness within the subtle body in addition to a seventh, said to exist above the head. According to the sixteenth-century Sat Cakra Niru¯pana (Investigation into the Six Chakras), the six subtle body chakras reside at the base of the spine, the reproductive region, the navel area, the heart, and the throat, and between the eyebrows. These are known as the muladhara, svadhisthana, manipura, anahata, visuddha, and ajña chakras, respectively. Above the head unfolds the splendid sahasrara chakra, the "thousand-petaled lotus" of universal consciousness.

Thoughts and motivations centered in the region of the muladhara chakra are said to be driven by brute animal desires and framed by feelings of insecurity. When awakened by the shakti, however, this chakra stands as the source of creativity and change, without which there can be no transformation. Attitudes and motivations at the level of the svadhisthana chakra turn on sexual feelings and are associated with such qualities as pretense, suspicion, disdain, delusion, false understanding, and petty self-centeredness. When purified by the shakti, these attributes are said to be transformed into trust, concern, purity of intention, genuine understanding, and warm affection. Thoughts and emotions arising in the manipura chakra are based in competition, treachery, shame, jealousy, inertia, sadness, ignorance, and fear. However, the shakti transforms the preoccupation with shame into an emphasis on honor, deceit into authenticity and loyalty, sadness into joy, and so on.

Unawakened attitudes and motivations at the lower three chakras tend to be negative, self-centered, and finite. Entry into more expansive, even universal modes of consciousness takes place when the shakti ascends to the anahata chakra at the level of the heart. This is said to be to be the home of compassion and the place where awareness becomes immersed in the foundational love that supports the universe. The visuddha chakra, at the throat, is concerned with the ability to listen acutely, both to sacred teachings and to the voices of those who need help, and with the skill to express oneself in a way that brings understanding to others. Entering the ajñā chakra, between the eyebrows, the shakti emerges into transcendental consciousness unbound by time and space. The sahasrara chakra, above the head, is depicted as a fully blossomed lotus flower from which drop golden streams of nectar and is said to be the realm of the infinite, divine consciousness in which all modes of awareness have their source and toward which all are pulled.

See alsoDivinity; Healing; Hinduism; Meditation; Yoga.


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